A sound-bite rippled through the major news outlets last week when Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was announced as the new Nobel Laureate for Literature. “It’s a political statement“, we heard from all sides, because Pamuk had recently faced a well-publicized trial in his home country for speaking about the Armenian genocide of 1915.
I heard a radio interview with Pamuk where he sounded exhausted with this sound-bite and practically begged the interviewer to change the subject. Who can blame him? The funny thing about this is that Pamuk is a deeply worldly and politically conscious author, but in completely different ways than the genocide-trial sound-bite indicates.
Luckily, some better articles are being written lately by the likes of Margaret Atwood in the Guardian and James Marcus in the Los Angeles Times, who focuses on Pamuk’s early postmodern novel, White Castle. As this example shows, Pamuk is primarily an architect of experimental fiction, like Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka, rather than an topical-minded novelist like George Orwell or Joseph Heller. He’s into identity games and kaleidoscopic narrative structures, and this is probably the most essential characteristic of Pamuk’s entire career.
Interestingly, though, Pamuk seems to enjoy throwing the hottest topics of the day into his swirling narrative pools, and his last two novels Snow and My Name Is Red focused on two very current controversies: the wearing of veils by Muslim women (Snow) and the Islamic prohibition against representative art (My Name Is Red). It’s because Orhan Pamuk treats subjects like these with great sensitivity and knowledge that he can accurately be called a political writer, and if the Nobel committee had awarded his prize on the basis of political relevance at all, it would be on the basis of these two powerful books above all else.
These books are political but they don’t settle on sides — how could an author who feels compelled to get into the head of every single character he dreams up possibly designate one character as right and one as wrong? Pamuk simply puts his turbulent and stubborn creations into a room and let’s them talk to each other, argue, shoot each other, try to find their way to a truce. Snow presents an uproarious public debate that takes a sudden turn for the worse when a military coup erupts at a poetry reading. My Name Is Red (which I wrote about at greater length here) is about what happens when the top artists in 16th Century Istanbul become fatally attracted to the controversial new style, emanating from Persia, which veers dangerously towards representation of the glorious (but forbidden) human image.
Do we actually have to tap journalists on the head and point out that head-coverings and prohibitions against representational art have been hot topics lately? Did all of the top newspaper reporters just phone in the same two sentences about the issue of Armenian genocide, or did any of them take the trouble to look deeper before filing their stories?
The Armenian genocide is an important issue, and one can only hope that Orhan Pamuk will decide to write about this wrenching failure of humanity in some future work. But he hasn’t written about the Armenian genocide yet — he’s only spoken briefly about the subject in interviews, for which he’s faced prosecution. But this is the one question he is forced to answer over and over, despite the fact that his most famous books could provide several other fascinating questions (if anybody would simply ask them).
If mainstream journalists are going to tag a writer as “political”, they should at least do their homework and figure out why and how this is true.